The city of Sanya, Hainan Province, represents the southernmost point along the South China Sea coast of Hainan Island, itself located just off the coast of Guangdong Province. Hainan Island's western and northern coasts face the Gulf of Tonkin that lies between the island and Vietnam. Sanya's ancient name was Yazhou, meaning literally "cliff state", a reference to the fact that the city is ringed on three sides by mountains. The city of Sanya was also often referred to as Tianyahaijiao – meaning, literally, "the place where the sky and the ocean meet", or "the end of the earth", figuratively speaking. In somewhat less ancient, dynastic times, Sanya came to be known as China's "Southern Gate", thanks to its role as a seaport.
As indicated, Sanya is surrounded by mountains. There are mountains that lie farther recessed from the coast, though they do not exactly ring the city, while Yalong Bay itself, home to Sanya's perhaps best beach, is surrounded on three sides by mountains, some of which reach almost to the coastline. There are numerous streams that drain the mountain range that lies behind Sanya (looking landward, or northward), that is, for the most part, they drain the natural reservoirs that have formed high up in the mountains behind Sanya. Some of these streams empty into Sanya Bay itself, while others empty either into Dadong Bay or Yalong Bay. Water, both freshwater as well as saltwater, is therefore a central theme in the city of Sanya.
The island of Hainan has an interesting Chinese history, of which the city of Sanya naturally forms a part, albeit, only a relatively recent part of that history. The island was made an integral part of China early on, surely for defensive reasons, that is, as soon as the first Chinese emperor concerned himself about Guangdong Province, he would naturally be concerned about Hainan Island, since it represented Guangdong's seaward flank, therefore the Chinese emperors, beginning presumably with the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty ("presumably" because the first mention of the island in Chinese historical annals stems from the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty, when the emperor established a military garrison on the island, but it is believed that the previous short dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, had already made the island into a prefecture) took care to incorporate the island into the empire.
Hainan's main function, apart from that of a military garrison, was that it long served as a place of exile for disgraced public officials, in much the same way that Saint Helena (the God-forsaken, British-controlled, mid-Atlantic island situated roughly midway between South America and Africa and where a humiliated, post-Waterloo Napoleon was exiled) and Devil's Island (in French Guiana, where the French military officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of spying on his country on behalf of the Germans, was exiled in 1895, but soon exonerated and released in 1899) served as island exiles.
The most famous personage to be exiled to Hainan Island was the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty poet, Su Shi (CE 1037-1101), better known as Su Dongpo, though, on Hainan Island, the poet lived in the village of Zhonghe, roughly midway along the island's northern coastline, near Danzhou Bay. The poet was often at odds with the various factional political intrigues at court, and criticized these in his poems, but his political enemies always managed to construe Su's critical poems as being critical of the emperor – which is what landed him in a state of exile on more than one occasion – while in fact, Su never criticized the emperor, only some of the vicious political factions at court. Such dastardly political machinations would also plague the courts of Europe's monarchs centuries later.
At the time of Su's exile to Hainan, the Chinese presence on the island was restricted chiefly to the northeastern half of Hainan, which is predominantly flatland, whereas the southwestern half of the island is mountainous. Typical for mountainous islands elsewhere in China (such as Taiwan), when the mainstream Chinese would arrive, they would settle in the lowland regions, while the indigenous tribes would retreat to the mountainous areas, depending, of course, on the degree to which the indigenous tribes were willing to integrate with their new masters. Though Hainan's Li villages are scattered round about the island, the greatest concentration of these villages are to be found in the mountainous, southwestern half of the island. In all, there are some 20 ethnic minority groups represented on Hainan Island, a handful of which live in enclaves, or ethnic villages.
The most typical person to be exiled to Hainan was a government official who had abused his office, or who had fallen afoul of the ruling faction at court. Of course, as soon as the faction in question was swept from power (lost its influence with the emperor), the wronged public official would often be rehabilitated.
Hainan Island fell to the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), which of course spanned the Second World War (1939-45) in the Pacific Theatre; Hainan Island remained occupied by the Japanese from from 1941-45. During this period, the Imperial Japanese Navy was based in the city of Sanya, called Samah by the Japanese, as the city was strategically placed for monitoring and controlling the entrance to the Gulf of Tonkin as well as the South China Sea between the Indochinese Peninsula, the Philippines and Malaysia.
As late as 2006, Hainan Island was touted in some travel circles as a wonderfully preserved, blue-collar vacation destination. It was also a place where many Chinese retirees living on a modest, fixed income would retire, similar to the urge among middle class northerners in the U.S. to move to the state of Florida to enjoy their retirement years. All that is rapidly changing now on Hainan Island, since the government of the PRC, in cooperation with the provincial government of Hainan, has decided to cash in on the South Sea Island tourism potential of the island.
As most Westerners have probably observed by now, when the Chinese state makes a decision to develop a region, the distance between the decision and the fait accompli is amazingly – and perhaps enviably – short in comparison to regional development or urban renewal in the West, where environmental impact studies first have to be conducted. Not so in China; once a development decision is taken, construction generally follows immediately, though where local resistance is significant, the authorities naturally proceed as diplomatically as possible, while never losing sight of the ultimate goal.
Thus the Chinese state, in conjunction with the provincial government, took the decision to develop Hainan Island as a first-class South Sea Island tourist destination. The upscale makeover of Hainan, including the makeover of Sanya, has begun, though it is only in its initial phase. Part of the upscale makeover of the island will be to build a series of casinos, augmented with Las Vegas or Monaco style hotels, replete with vast auditoriums for international class entertainment; if the Hainan Island of 2008 was backpacker friendly, the Hainan Island of 2013 will be private yacht friendly.
Currently, the island is in the first stages of its upscale makeover (the best of Sanya's star-rated hotels already incorporte upscale features such as indoor jacuzzi and swimming pools – some of them fed by naturally occuring hot springs – and first-class restaurants serving a Chinese and international menu), meaning that Sanya still has plenty of inexpensive and laid-back venues that appeal to the backpacker and others on a budget, but if you belong to this category and are thinking of visiting Hainan Island – and perhaps Sanya in particular – then you would be advised to make that journey soon, otherwise the island's upscale makeover will have been completed by the time you get there, and your budgeted week-long stay, for economic reasons, might have to be reduced to a weekend stay at best.
This is not to say that Hainan Island and its beautiful seaside resort cities, such as the city of Sanya, will become wall-to-wall asphalt and concrete; quite the opposite – there will always be plenty of natural, or undeveloped, shoreline to supplement the already developed parts of Hainan's coves and bays, though the upscale makeover of the existing developed parts of Hainan's shoreline will be somewhat expanded, so as to achieve the optimal mix between the natural and the developed that the high-end consumer of tropical island vacations has come to expect.
Sanya's inarguably most attractive feature is its sandy beaches that are distributed among the city's three bays: Sanya, Yalong and Dadong, though for the best swimming and sunbathing, Sanya Bay and Yalong Bay excel, yet Dadong Bay is closest to the downtown area and thus most trafficked. Wuzhizhou Island in Sanya Bay is the ideal venue for all manner of water sports, from windsurfing to scuba diving to kayaking. Sanya was a favorite haunt of the former Chinese leader, Mao Zedung, himself an avid swimmer. It was also very popular with the Russian elite during the Soviet era, which earned the city the title of the "Vladivostok of the East". Sanya is now increasingly popular with tourists from Japan and Korea.
In fact, to this day, one meets a myriad of signs round about the city that are written in Russian, and some of the service personnel also still speak the lingo, and for these reasons perhaps, plus Hainan's proximity to Russia's Pacific coast, numerous Russians still frequent Sanya.
Thanks to the city's deepened harbor, Sanya Harbor is now a major port of call for deluxe cruise ships that ply the waters between China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indochina – and in some cases cruise ships that commute between China, Malaysia and Australia – depositing hundreds of adventurous tourists from all over the world in Sanya on a regular basis, so one never knows who one might be sitting next to when sipping a martini in a bar in Sanya.
With its warm, tropical climate, its coconut tree lined avenues, its deep blue waters and its golden beaches, Sanya is often compared to tourist destinations such as Hawaii or Bali. For some reason (perhaps by design!), the state and local governments have decided to keep the international fast-food chains off of Hainan Island, where the island's own seafood rules (if one can speak of fast food in Sanya, then the seafood stalls along Sanya Harbor is the only category that qualifies), but where one can also enjoy all of the other highlights of Hainan Cuisine, which is inspired chiefly by the Min (Fujian) and Yue (Guangdong) Cuisine schools.
But being an all-encompassing tourist resort still, with over 80 star-rated hotels, Sanya also offers the dishes of Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou Cuisines, including traditional as well as modern dishes prepared on the basis of water fowl, beef, pork, and lamb. If you are Muslim you can find so-called halal food here as well (think: "kosher", but for Muslims instead of Jews), and most of the better restaurants also serve vegetarian dishes. Note that Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan Cuisines all belong to the Eight Great Cuisine Schools of China. Note also that the absence of international fast-food chains on Hainan has made it easier for the state and local governments to opt for the upscale tourism market here, but perhaps things were planned that way...
Just as with the U.S. resort state of Florida, the weather on Hainan Island is best when it is worst everywhere else. That is, the best time to visit Hainan Island is from autumn to spring (the heat and humidity of summer do not invite outdoor activity, but once the upscale makeover of Sanya is complete, the indoor pools of the larger hotels combined with the casinos will make Hainan Island – and Sanya in particular – an attractive, year round getaway). Another plus for Sanya is its fresh air; the city's air quality was rated as the world's second best by the World Health Organization in 1995, and with little or no industrial production on Hainan Island, little has changed since to reduce Sanya's excellent air quality.
Sanya's main tourist attractions, apart from its beaches – such as the premier beach at Yalong Bay – and its soon to come casinos are: Luhuitou Park; Wuzhizhou Island; Monkey Island (home to a colony of some 1800 free-roaming Macaque monkeys); Western Island; Mount Nanshan Resort Area (Nanshan Temple/ Longevity Park/ and Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy statue – Guanyin is also the patron saint, as it were, of all seafarers); Nantian Hot Springs; and the Tianya Haijiao ("End of the Earth") Resort Area. Sanya's less touristy, or perhaps more family oriented, attractions include: the Tiger and Crocodile Center; the Butterfly Museum; the Shell Aquarium; Daxiao Dongtian (Fairy Caves); and the Li, Hui and Miao ethnic minority villages in the mountains north of Sanya.
Sanya's main festivals are: the traditional Chinese New Year Festival, or Spring Festival, as the Chinese refer to it, which takes place at the end of January and stretches into February, depending on the Lunar Calendar; the Sanyuesan Festival (Funianfu, in the language of the ethnic Li, this being the main annual festival of the Li people of Hainan), held in early March (depending on the exact Lunar Calendar date), which is a lovers festival, or Chinese Valentine's Day, as it were; the Longevity Festival, held at Mount Nanshan in September; and the International Wedding Festival, which takes place at the famous seashore boulders at Tianya Haijiao in November.
If you would like to shop for some interesting bargains in Sanya with a local, ethnic flavor (don't forget that there are about 20 ethnic groups living here), then you shouldn't miss the night market at Sanya Harbor – the atmospherics alone are worth a visit, even if you aren't looking to purchase a souvenir, though it could be difficult to resist buying at the very least a tasteful piece of jewelry made either of pearls or of Hainan Island coral – or both.
As indicated above, Sanya has numerous star-rated hotels, among the high end of which can be found Hiltons, Marriotts, Ritz-Carltons and Sheratons. As something unique, the city also has a limited number of Tree Houses that can be rented for an unforgettable, Tarzan & Jane experience, though don't expect the chimps to bring fresh coconuts and pineapples to your breakfast table, though both abound (and Macaques abound as well, albeit, on Monkey Island). The Dadong Bay harbor area comes alive at night with discotheques, while its sidewalk cafés are busy all day long and into late evening. If you are into quiet strolls along the shore, then there are lesser trafficked bays where the bathing and swimming pressure is not so pronounced.
State and local government, as indicated, are in the process of transforming Hainan Island into an upscale tourist market. Part of that plan is the expansion of harbor facilities at Sanya to accomodate greater numbers of private yachts. If golf is one of your pasttimes, then Sanya has a string of nearby golf clubs for your pleasure, all with 18-hole courses: Yalong Bay Golf Club, Sun Valley Golf Club, Sanya International Golf Club and the Luhuitou Golf Club – you can of course opt for a 9-hole game if you prefer it.
The development plans that are under way on Hainan Island does not mean that the island will be transformed into a getaway for the jet-set crowd only; the idea is to keep Hainan, including favorite cities like Sanya, family friendly as well. For now, there is even room for backpackers, but if you belong to this crowd, you had better get cracking – or shall we say, packing, for the window of opportunity is rapidly closing!